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Jaap de Hoop Scheffer: Diplomatic long distance runner

Robert van de Roer profiles Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO's new Secretary General.

(© Nato)

One day early in 2000 the world of Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, then leader of the Netherlands' Christian Democrats (CDA), seemed to be falling apart. "It was as if 20 years of my eldest child's education had just been thrown down the drain," he recalls.

His daughter Caroline had just introduced her parents to her new boyfriend, Jimmy, in a restaurant in The Hague. He was a strange, English-speaking man with an earring and long hair. Born in 1947, he was a year older than De Hoop Scheffer and had been earning his living as an entertainer on some sort of "Love Boat" in the Caribbean. Jimmy was now studying astrology with a view to becoming a palm reader on a cruise ship and wished to take Caroline, who was a law student, with him on the next cruise. Jimmy also appeared to be the marrying type, unashamed of the fact that he had already been married four times.

De Hoop Scheffer and his wife Jeannine were not amused. But they tried to behave as if nothing was wrong. Only after Jimmy and Caroline left the table for a moment did they explode in frustration.

Jeannine: "Oh my God, what a mess."

Jaap: "We've just got to get through this. We'll have a serious talk with her tomorrow."

Jeannine: "This is just unbelievable."

Jaap: "It's unacceptable."

Jeannine: "What a complete idiot."

Jaap: "This is a disaster. He's awful and he's manipulating her."

De Hoop Scheffer quickly devised a rescue plan: he would get Caroline's best friend to persuade her to change her mind.

A few moments later, came the climax. The whole scenario had been set up by the television programme Bananasplit, a Dutch version of Candid Camera, with Caroline in on the act. Close examination of the television images shows De Hoop Scheffer a little unnerved, sipping white wine and rubbing his nose. But the panic attack he was actually experiencing cannot be detected. It is hidden behind a façade of self-control and politeness.

"This is a great reaction that qualifies him perfectly for the job of NATO Secretary General," says Niek Biegman, former Dutch Ambassador to NATO and currently NATO's Senior Civilian Representative to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.* "Even when the world in his head collapses, he's still able to stay on his feet. This is very important." Biegman worked with De Hoop Scheffer at the Dutch delegation to NATO in the 1970s and knows him well. "Jaap is soon going to get more bad news from NATO countries. And he's going to have to come up with instant responses without collapsing."

Just over one-and-a-half years after the Bananasplit hoax, De Hoop Scheffer suffered a genuine setback. In the wake of an internal party row he was forced to step down as CDA leader and he appeared destined for burial alongside the legions of failed Dutch politicians. While still a respected figure, he was regarded as aloof and had failed to inspire the Dutch electorate and turn around the CDA's fortunes.

Against the odds, however, he bounced back, becoming first foreign minister and now NATO Secretary General. For this turnaround, even his parliamentary opponents give him credit. "Coming back in this way after such a blow from his party, is a terrific achievement," says Bert Koenders, foreign policy spokesman of the Social Democratic opposition party PvdA and one of the most outspoken critics of De Hoop Scheffer's Iraq policy. "He can take blows. He's tough. He's absolutely no softy."

His friend and running companion, the most senior civil servant at the Dutch Foreign Ministry, Frank Majoor, says: "Jaap reacted in an extremely controlled manner to his fall in the CDA. Personally, it hit him incredibly hard, but he tried to hide that from the outside world. Jaap doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve."

This is the attitude of the drilled diplomat he is. Now at the top of the diplomatic ladder, he clambered onto the bottom rung at an early age.

Jakob Gijsbert de Hoop Scheffer was born in Amsterdam in 1948, the son of a Catholic mother and a father who converted to Catholicism and was General Secretary of the Stockbrokers' Association. As a law student at the University of Leiden, he picked international relations as an optional course and organised student debates on the subject. His thesis concerned the US military presence in Europe after the Second World War. These issues captivated him more than the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which seem to have pretty much passed him by.

De Hoop Scheffer's interest in the foreign service was in part inspired by his uncle and namesake, a career diplomat who became Dutch ambassador to NATO in the 1980s. After completing military service in the air force, where he became a reserve officer, De Hoop Scheffer joined the Foreign Ministry as a trainee in the information department. He followed the Netherlands' one-year training programme for young diplomats in 1975.

During an exercise the junior diplomats simulated the workings of the North Atlantic Council. "I played Germany," De Hoop Scheffer recalls. His classmates were impressed by his "command of the facts" and "focused attitude", says Ed Kronenburg, then a classmate and now director of his private office at NATO and a close confidant. "Even then he was an Atlanticist. More businesslike than passionate, he demonstrated both his ambition and his potential as a diplomat," Kronenburg says. Another classmate, now a senior official in The Hague, who wishes to remain anonymous, says: "Jaap belonged at the top of our class and was much more ready for the foreign service than we were."

So what motivates him? "Whether it's Africa or Iraq, it's about helping people," De Hoop Scheffer says. "Peace, stability and prosperity form the basis for any foreign policy. But you shouldn't play the missionary all the time, because it won't work. You have to stay rational."

After basic diplomatic training, De Hoop Scheffer was posted in 1976 to the Dutch Embassy in Ghana for two years. His wife Jeannine, whom he had met at a student party in Leiden where she was studying French, went with him. Their relationship was "love at first sight" and has always stayed "very strong", he says.

His first diplomatic drama took place shortly after his arrival in Accra. "Newly arrived, I felt like a mini-Kissinger," De Hoop Scheffer recalls. "But soon I discovered that as a secretary I was really a dogsbody for the ambassador. One night the ambassador phoned me to say that the air conditioning in the residence had broken down while she was hosting a dinner for 24 guests, and she wanted me to take a look. My efforts resulted in a total power failure and the dinner had to continue in the dark."

Among other tasks, the young De Hoop Scheffer had to change the oil of the embassy's official car, chase an iguana from the ambassador's garden and keep cockroaches under control. But he also found time to play squash with Jerry Rawlings, then a lieutenant but later to become the country's president. And his years there left him with "a great love for Africa". "Sometimes I can cry when that continent is in the news as a result of mass murder and famine," he would say later.

Between 1977 and 1980, De Hoop Scheffer served at the Dutch delegation to NATO in Brussels. His then colleague, Niek Biegman, remembers him as a "clever, fast and hard-working" diplomat. Biegman also got to know him as an accomplished cabaret performer. "We used to sing at colleagues' farewell parties," Biegman says. "Jaap is creative and playful and has a good cabaret voice. He writes his own lyrics to the tunes of existing songs."

De Hoop Scheffer picks "mostly jazz classics, like Cole Porter". "I can't read music, but I used to sing in a choir," he says. His cabaret performances would later become something of a tradition at CDA events.

One widely remembered De Hoop Scheffer performance marked the opening of the new Foreign Ministry building in The Hague in 1985. He sang the song Henry, the Deleter. The target was one of the most senior officials at the ministry, who was notorious for sending papers back four or five times to subordinates, full of deleted words in red ink. "People doubled up with laughter," Biegman recalls. "Except for Henry, who was genuinely angry and thought for many years that someone else had written the words. Something that always made Jaap laugh."

"Jaap can discuss an issue very seriously and intensely, but at the same time he can discuss it in a very relaxed way," the senior official who prefers to remain anonymous says about De Hoop Scheffer's style. "He can easily put himself into perspective and see the ridiculous side of something. Of course, you have to be able to laugh a little in this profession."

Diplomacy's ceremonial side has a certain theatrical quality and De Hoop Scheffer has some "acting" ability, according to his classmates. Colleagues from his NATO years still remember how he was able to impersonate some of the Alliance's more colourful figures, including a particularly gruff ambassador and an especially pompous count.

Biegman witnessed De Hoop Scheffer's first brush with politics. Both were members of the small Belgian cell of D66, a Dutch political party that was considered "chic left" at the time. According to De Hoop Scheffer: "There was a lot of talking about foreign policy. It was the time of the cruise missiles. I favoured the deployment." D66 did not.

A couple of years later, De Hoop Scheffer switched to the Christian Democrats. In the meantime, in response to the birth of his two daughters, Caroline and Stephanie, he had become a practising Catholic. "I wanted my daughters to have a religion. I wanted to give them something spiritual," he says.

Before moving to Brussels last December, De Hoop Scheffer was a eucharistic minister in the Paschalis Baylon parish in The Hague. He assisted the priest, did the readings, said prayers and distributed the host. "God means trust to me. I am convinced that there is a hereafter. I don't know what it looks like, but I associate it with harmony," he told the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant in 1997. And he told the newspaper Trouw that the beautiful parts in the bible that he reads out loud in church do not always provide the answers: "At the same time, I think: but what about Srebrenica, what about Rwanda? I don't have an answer to that. It would be nice if God could intervene every time there is a threat of a bloody conflict. But that doesn't happen."

De Hoop Scheffer became private secretary to the Dutch Foreign Minister in 1980 and worked for four successive ministers: Chris van der Klaauw, Max van der Stoel, Dries van Agt and Hans van den Broek. On one occasion, De Hoop Scheffer helped Minister Van der Stoel when he broke his arm during a swim in Angola. From Luanda, they had to get to a NATO meeting in Brussels. Because of snow the government plane was forced to land in Rotterdam. Van der Stoel insisted on going to Brussels by train. "There we were, standing in tropical clothes on a platform in Rotterdam," De Hoop Scheffer laughs. "You could see people thinking: what are those two idiots doing here, the Foreign Minister and some other guy."

Van den Broek also felt him "in my shadow, watching over my schedule and my documents". And much more besides. On a trip to Oman, the luggage did not arrive. That night Van den Broek was to be a guest at a dinner with the Crown Prince of Jordan. De Hoop Scheffer went to the basement of the hotel and asked the waiters where they stored their work clothes. He then went through them and managed to find a waiter's dinner jacket for his minister, albeit one with sleeves far too short for the imposing Van den Broek.

"Jaap was very tactful and socially dextrous," Van den Broek says. "He had great skills to reassure people that he just had passed on their message to the minister, even though the minister's schedule was jam-packed."

Looking back on that period, De Hoop Scheffer once said: "It's very pleasant to function quietly in the corridors of power. What struck me was that decision-making takes place in so ordinary and clumsy a fashion. It's fascinating to be there. It's very rewarding to take minutes on your note pad of a conversation for one-and-a-half hours with the Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko. Without those sort of insights, I wouldn't have made the step into politics."

De Hoop Scheffer became a member of parliament in 1986 with the support of Van den Broek, Van Agt and others with, according to insiders, the "secret dream" of becoming a minister himself one day. From the beginning, he focused on foreign affairs and development cooperation and positioned himself on the CDA's right wing.

From the early 1990s his political profile within the ruling party grew in part as a result of sharp debates in parliament. In one instance in 1992, he clashed fiercely with Jan Pronk, the development minister from the CDA's Social Democratic coalition partner PvdA. He accused Pronk of undermining Foreign Minister Van den Broek's discreet diplomacy towards Indonesia with his high-profile criticism of the country's human rights' record. Pronk had to back down.

In the same year, De Hoop Scheffer caught the public eye by recalling parliament during its summer recess in response to the escalating war in the former Yugoslavia and shocking television images of imprisoned and emaciated Bosnian Muslims. And on one occasion, he illustrated the shortcomings of the border control system at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport by waving in parliament the magnetic entry passes, which he had himself fished out of the airport's dustbins.

When in 1993 Van den Broek was appointed European Commissioner, De Hoop Scheffer was expected to succeed him. Yet he was not chosen. And more disappointments were to follow. In 1994, he failed in an attempt to become CDA leader, though he eventually became deputy leader after the CDA lost 20 seats in the elections. "I must be careful I don't remain a promising newcomer forever," he concluded in 1995.

Three years later, by which time he had become CDA leader, he proved unable to turn the electoral tide. In the May 1998 elections, the CDA lost another five seats under his leadership. All of a sudden, De Hoop Scheffer found himself leader of a party in opposition. It was not a role he was comfortable in, parliamentarian watchers judged. Repeated criticism included limited expertise in financial and social economic matters and less than perfect timing in debates.

Was De Hoop Scheffer the right person to lead a broad people's party in crisis? Was he not more a diplomat than a politician? More a reconciler than an architect of ideas?

According to Van den Broek, who was in many respects his mentor: "As CDA leader Jaap did not seem to be entirely in the right place. He had a strained appearance. He wasn't able to propagate Christian Democratic ideas with an ideological passion. He is much more driven by pragmatism than ideology. I recognise that, because it's the same for me."

De Hoop Scheffer still talks about this period with visible discomfort: "Those years were very difficult for the CDA. It was a time of internal turbulence. The party was collectively written off. But indeed, I'm not a missionary. I will always let rational argument prevail."

In September 2001, he clashed with his party chairman, Marnix van Rij, and was forced to step down after losing the confidence of the CDA's executive committee, an episode that De Hoop Scheffer has called "a scar on my soul". But in his darkest hour, he maintained his dignity. "Jaap did not react with rancour and kept everything to himself," Van den Broek says. "He knew that politics is a world with high peaks and deep troughs," says the senior official in The Hague who prefers to remain anonymous.

Ten months later, in July 2002, De Hoop Scheffer returned to the political centre stage as foreign minister. In effect, he was a beneficiary of the transformation of the Netherlands' political landscape, which followed the assassination of Pim Fortuyn. In the absence of the populist politician who had come close to turning Dutch politics on its head, the CDA performed strongly in the May elections under its new leader Jan Peter Balkenende. When forming a government, Prime Minister Balkenende rewarded the loyalty that De Hoop Scheffer had continued to show to the party after his fall.

Back in his "own" ministry De Hoop Scheffer was like a fish in water. "He flourished. Acting in international relations came easy to him," Van den Broek says. "He was better as a minister than as a member of parliament." His friend Frank Majoor agrees: "Indisputably, he felt more in his element as minister than as CDA leader. He very much would have liked to continue his work as minister." According to the anonymous senior official, De Hoop Scheffer's fate as CDA leader turned out to be formative: "Who can have that sort of experience as a minister? The trauma he experienced in the CDA has left him with enormous resilience."

As foreign minister, De Hoop Scheffer frequently duelled with Koenders, foreign affairs spokesman of the opposition party PvdA. Koenders describes him as a "good minister with a tremendous dossier knowledge" but doubts whether he has the "the strategic visionary insight to give a new, clear identity to NATO". "He's an Atlanticist on automatic pilot. In Iraq, he chose the American line and an opportunistic approach." According to Koenders, De Hoop Scheffer did not play the role of "bridge builder" well "because he snubbed France and Germany".

De Hoop Scheffer rejects the criticism and does not lose any sleep over it. "If this would have been true, I don't think I would be in Brussels now,'' he says chuckling.

Many think that De Hoop Scheffer performed a canny balancing act between Europe and America during the Iraq crisis, and that this is the reason he got the NATO job. He supported the Americans and the British without alienating the French and Germans, these analysts say. In this way, The Hague gave the United States political support for the war, but no military assistance. Moreover, the Netherlands was not a signatory of the controversial letter of eight European countries, which stressed their solidarity with the United States. But Washington was pleased that the Netherlands was prepared to dispatch Patriot missile systems to Turkey ahead of the war.

On 2 June 2003, at the fringes of the NATO ministerial meeting in Madrid, less then eleven months after De Hoop Scheffer's appointment as foreign minister, then NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson told him that he should succeed him. "Why me?" De Hoop Scheffer replied reluctantly. "I've just been appointed minister and love it. The Presidency of the European Union is coming up in the second half of 2004. Let me finish my job."

"We think you're good," Lord Robertson continued. "You're a minister with authority among your colleagues. European. Atlanticist, but attracted by European ideals." The next day, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin greeted De Hoop Scheffer while entering the conference room: "Bonjour, Monsieur le Secrétaire Général." De Hoop Scheffer answered: ''Dominique, tu rigoles ."

But he knew his name was in the ring. De Hoop Scheffer's relations with De Villepin were in his own words "very good" despite the Iraqi crisis. It helped that the Dutchman was a Francophile - just like his wife who teaches French - and that he had given a press conference in fluent French in Paris with De Villepin last year. International support for De Hoop Scheffer's candidacy developed rapidly, especially after he became the preferred US candidate behind the scenes. No matter how happy he was as foreign minister, he knew he could not turn down the NATO job.

The new Alliance Secretary General has often been described as down-to-earth. In his first few weeks, he has been seen drinking coffee among staff in the NATO canteen in the same way that he used to lunch in the Dutch Foreign Ministry's canteen whenever his schedule permitted. And he says that he is determined: "This will stay the same at NATO."

To clear his head, he goes running. For more than 30 years, every Sunday morning after church, he has run with his friend Frank Majoor in the dunes of The Hague. Recently, De Hoop Scheffer set a new personal best for 15 kilometres of one hour and seventeen minutes. It is a time that few international statesmen and not even his bodyguards can match. His bodyguards can keep up with him, as they have during the first few runs in Brussels, but only by riding mountain bikes. With a heavy schedule ahead of him, such as new NATO missions in Afghanistan and possibly Iraq, De Hoop Scheffer will need his resilience and stamina more than ever.

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